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Afghanistan's Taliban, opposition both claim gains

rockets firing July 31, 1997
Web posted at: 5:44 p.m. EDT (2144 GMT)

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Taliban religious army sent in helicopter gunships on Thursday to battle opposition soldiers near the Afghan capital. The opposition, meanwhile, predicted the fall of Kabul was imminent.

The latest battle took place about nine miles north of the capital, where the two sides have been locked in a stalemate for the past week. Before that, the opposition had made spectacular gains, moving quickly through Taliban defenses north of Kabul.

Kabul will fall "in days," the brother of anti-Taliban coalition leader Ahmed Shah Massoud told CNN by telephone from London. Wali Massoud, a London-based Afghan diplomat, is in daily contact with his brother.

He said the level of recruits now joining the Taliban -- mostly teen-agers from refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan -- demonstrated the weakness of the fundamentalist Islamic group.

Despite the prediction of opposition victory, however, the Taliban appeared firmly in control on Thursday, and there were no signs of a retreat.

The Taliban interior minister said Taliban forces had captured one village north of the capital and were closing in on another.

"We have taken the town of Gul Dara (19 miles or 30 km north of Kabul) and we have surrounded the opposition in Mir Batcha Kot (17 miles or 27 km from Kabul)," said Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa.

A Taliban soldier, who gave his name only as Tasatullah, said four civilians were killed and three were wounded on Thursday when opposition jets bombing hilltop Taliban positions also hit a nearby village.

It was impossible to independently confirm the Taliban claims.

Opposition forces, which control the northern third of the country, want the Taliban to leave Kabul and allow a neutral force to take control.

The Taliban, who rule the capital and the southern two-thirds of the country, have refused, demanding the opposition hand over prisoners of war and embrace the Taliban's rigid form of Islamic rule.

Thursday's military developments came on the same day as the opposition postponed a meeting with United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan Norbert Holl.

Holl was supposed to meet opposition leaders in their stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

U.N. officials in the town said that the meeting was rescheduled for Friday.

Correspondent Peter Bergen and Reuters contributed to this report.


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